Paul Thomas Anderson, the director of There Will Be Blood, Magnolia, Boogie Nights and Punch Drunk Love, has – in the eyes of many critics – never made a bad film; he continues this fine run of form with The Master. That is not to say that there are not some serious problems with the film itself, but, as is often the case with an artist of undeniable and distinctive talents, the good manages to outweigh the bad.
The Master begins at the end of the Second World War and recounts the story of troubled U.S. Navy man, Freddie Quell (Joaquín Phoenix), and his subsequent involvement with the L. Ron Hubbard-like leader of ‘The Cause’, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). From the outset, we see Freddie as a sad figure with a predilection for alcohol and all things intoxicating. On his release from the forces, he is obliged to undergo a psychological evaluation and when subjected to a Rorschach test, he only sees genitalia – a sequence that hints at past trauma far and beyond his experiences in the war.
After his release, Quell works first as a department store photographer and then as a farm labourer – both times his volatile temperament and weakness for moonshine are his undoing. Then, in a twist of fate, he hops aboard a docked ship, which turns out to be captained by Dodd and manned by supporters of his cultish movement. Drunk and desperate, the young drifter is taken under the wing of Dodd, becoming both his protégé and his enforcer. In an early, captivating scene in which Dodd ‘audits’ the younger man – asking him a series of rapid-fire and probing questions – the tenor of their relationship is established. The older man assumes the role of the master and the younger one the child-like simpleton. Despite the change in location and any number of other details, The Master turns out to be another one of Anderson’s explorations of the father-son dynamic, as seen in most of his films from Hard Eight onwards – most obviously in the relationship between Daniel Plainview and H. W. in There Will Be Blood or Jack Reynolds and Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights.
After its dreamlike and magisterial first thirty minutes, the movie undergoes something of a change, morphing into a character study of the two men. Here, some of the films’ greatest virtues and arguably its biggest flaw present themselves. For the performances of the two leading men are first class and full of energy, each man squaring up to the other. Phoenix flails about the screen, drunkenly slurring his words with a maniacal intensity in what is a great physical performance; the ever-excellent Hoffman positively oozes doughy-faced charisma, displaying an evangelical zeal always tinged with anger. It is through the two protagonists’ intense relationship that the film’s principal themes – the effect of war trauma on the American people and their willingness to join such implausible ‘religions’ – are laid bare.
Where one would expect some clanging crescendo worthy of the accompanying pomp, the film is naturalistic in its rejection of conventional Hollywood plotting, and one could easily take issue with the film’s final act. For where one might expect what American MFA courses would term ‘character development’, The Master is once again resistant and there is no real denouement. Similarly, the Scientology angle is so unimportant as to be something of a red herring; what matters is the two men and their odd, at times homoerotic, at times paternal, at times idolatrous, relationship. But even this frustrates. Motifs such as open water and repetitive cult scenes recur frequently, wearyingly so.
Jonny Greenwood’s score is equally idiosyncratic in its eschewal of the usual swelling strings for arrhythmic discordance. The music is unsettling and often trying as it shuffles along: a genuine insight into Freddie’s haunted mind. Cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. has also done a sterling job of mixing the conventional and the outré. He beautifully juxtaposes the natural beauty of America with extreme close ups; the film is never less than visually stunning.
Contrary to popular belief, having Oscar-worthy performances, eye-catching 70-mm cinematography, a noteworthy score and a captivating set-up does not always make for a classic. For this writer, at least, the critical swooning post-Venice is not entirely deserved by the action, yet is somehow expected given the slippery, enigmatic and striking nature of the material. For all the brooding intensity of Phoenix and the charismatic grandstanding of Hoffman, one cannot help feeling that the promises of The Master are similar to those offered by cults themselves: illusory and somehow hollow.